If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 30, 2009

Edgar Degas House in New Oleans

This past weekend I was having peace and justice meetings in New Orleans. Close to our meeting place I saw the Edgar Degas house on Esplanade Street. I didn't know that the famous French Impressionist painter lived in New Orleans. Sadly, I did poorly in my art history classes in college and wasn't particularly interested in Impressionism as a realist.

Edgar Degas' mother (DeGas), grandmother and the Musson family, Degas' uncle, were from New Orleans. He lived in the house from 1872-3. When the house was first built the grounds covered the whole block. The house was built in 1852 by Benjamin Rodriguez during the development of the Esplanade Ridge neighborhood prior to the Civil War. The Esplanade Ridge was a neighborhood of wealthy Creoles. Thriving affluence brought on a building boom in New Orleans.

Edgar Degas painting Portraits in an Office: The New Orleans Cotton Exchange(above) visualizes a Southern industry that used and abused African-American labor and built Southern wealth (Michel Musson, Degas' uncle, owned seven slaves).

Prior to the Civil War the port of New Orleans was the farmer's only option for selling cotton. The New Orleans Cotton Exchange held a monopoly on the cotton trade. Slave labor brought in the cotton and the wealth. When slavery ended it not only disrupted the cotton industry, but bankrupted many of those who sold the cotton, who worked at the Cotton Exchange.

My visit to New Orleans and the African-American communities most deeply impacted by the levee breaks during hurricane Katrina were stark reminders that the racism within New Orleans, as well as the US in general, continues to benefit the white, wealthy elite and oppress African-Americans who live there. That is my impression and it is not a pretty picture.

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